Jump Start Operators with Virtual Training

By Katie Weiler, Managing Editor | September 28, 2010


Michael Hoeg, senior instructional designer and developer for John Deere, demonstrates a truck-loading exercise from the excavator simulator.

Despite today’s economy and unemployment in the construction industry, a labor shortage of trained operators and technicians lurks around the corner. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act promises $787 billion for making improvements to our infrastructure and roads, but do we have the manpower and expertise to run and maintain the equipment necessary to build those projects?


The answer remains to be seen. Efforts have been underway to educate young people about careers in construction. Manufacturers, contractors and industry associations are offering scholarships and training programs to high-school students to pique their interest. Manufacturers are also making their machines easier to operate and maintain, as well as providing more intuitive training devices from which to learn.

One such device is a PC-based equipment simulator for training purposes. Designers and engineers have tapped into video-game technology with the use of software, joysticks and a monitor to provide a virtual jobsite setting and step-by-step exercises designed for entry-level operator training. The PC-based technology began in the forestry industry about 10 years ago. And in 2005, excavator simulator training was introduced to the construction market. Since then, training programs have grown to include wheel loaders, haul trucks, motor graders, scrapers and cranes.

This technology is quickly becoming adopted by training schools all over the world. Many manufacturers offer their own versions and market them to schools, contractors, dealers and municipalities. Simulator training can be used for employee screening, cross training, job fairs, jobsite planning and more. Benefits quickly outweigh the costs. By not using actual machines for initial operator training, companies will save on individual instructor costs, fuel consumption, machine wear-and-tear, maintenance, engine-use hours, and emissions reduction. In addition, it is much safer for operators and jobsite personnel if a student operator masters his basic skills in the classroom.

Caterpillar, John Deere and Simlog/VISTA Training are the main players in the U.S. virtual-construction-equipment training market. Volvo announced in April that it offers a wheel loader, excavator, and articulated haul-truck simulator in various formats from a higher end (cab on a hydraulic motion platform) to a portable, briefcase sized simulator — neither of which are PC-based. Volvo did studies internally and with a university to analyze motion vs. non-motion simulator training and simulator vs. real-machine training. Based on those results, Volvo opted to offer only motion-based training. But that realism comes with a price. Volvo’s simulator software license starts at $25,000 and doesn’t include hardware.

For lower-cost, PC-based virtual training options, Caterpillar, John Deere and Simlog/ VISTA Training offer different variations based on similar operator-training principles. All three companies promote a three-step approach to training: Online/DVD courses, virtual jobsite training, and instructor-led courses. The companies encourage entry-level operators to take part in the online courses as they provide helpful background before stepping their virtual foot in the machines. The following pages focus on the simulator portion of the training programs (primarily earthmoving equipment) and explore their similarities and differences.


An early adopter of the technology, Caterpillar has offered PC-based operator training simulators since 2004. The company started its Virtual Training Systems (VTS) with hydraulic excavators and has expanded to include large wheel loaders, off-highway trucks, mining trucks, and M-Series motor graders. According to Cat, the VTS simulators are designed to train and orient entry-level and inexperienced operators on basic machine operation, skills and application knowledge.


A new feature of Caterpillar’s Gen II wheel-tractor-scraper simulator is the Free Training Module whereby an operator or instructor can customize training exercises.

All of the simulator programs start out with “control functions” and “dashboard” to familiarize the operator with which button/joystick performs which function and the layout of the dashboard. After that comes a series of exercises to teach operators the skills they would need on a real jobsite. For example, the excavator simulator is set in a construction environment and begins with bucket placement and bucket tasks, then covers carrier positioning, truck loading, truck dumping and trenching. Each new module becomes more challenging than the previous module, building upon the skills learned in each exercise.


The off-highway and mining truck simulators are set in their respective operating environments. After learning the control functions and dashboard, a student operator practices corridor driving, which teaches proper braking methods and how to follow traffic patterns. Then the curriculum becomes more difficult with positioning the truck for dumping, loading, as well as completing a haul cycle.

Probably one of the most important simulators for Caterpillar was the M-Series motor grader launched in tandem with the machine in 2006. Cat replaced all of the motor grader’s conventional controls — including steering — with a pair of joysticks. That was a serious technological advancement in the motor-grader world. But seasoned operators had to be convinced the new technology was an improvement and easier to navigate. After sitting down at the simulator for just a short period of time, many were truly amazed at how intuitive the joysticks were to use and how quickly one could learn which hand controlled which function.


Cat’s new training-records management tool, powered by SimU Campus, will create individual student accounts, save and print detailed reports, manage simulator usage and learning activities, allow instructors to customize curriculum, and offer benchmarks based on expert-operator data.

The most recent Cat simulator will offer more technological advancements. Caterpillar and Simformotion reached an agreement earlier in the year whereby Simformotion will develop, manufacture and distribute Cat-branded, PC-based op­erator-training simulators. The first “Gen II” simulator features a wheel tractor scraper and will be available in August. The second one, scheduled for release in October, will be the 924H wheel loader. And in 2010 they are planning to release a D8T track-type-tractor simulator.


Because of the introduction of new technologies, Cat will classify its existing simulators as “Gen I” to distinguish the new products from the old. According to Larry Estep, program manager, the Gen I products will be phased into Gen II versions over the next three years. Estep also explained that Gen I software works with Gen II hardware, but Gen II software only works with Gen II hardware. Also, Gen I control pods can be used on Gen II platforms.

“We’ve gone to a standard Cat seat instead of using an office chair,” says Estep. “We’ve integrated more of the Cat controls, so that when a student is sitting down at the simulator of a scraper, for example, they know that in the back is a transmission control — that’s where the control stick is at; those are the buttons they’ll need to operate; and the pedals are the same.

“So we have a great new design of the hardware, and we decided it was time to upgrade our software,” says Estep. “What you’re going to see in Generation II software didn’t exist in the past. First of all is the interactive pre-operation machine inspection. Every single product we put out today will have a module that the operator has to learn first — the walk-around they have to do on that machine before they drive it. Next is a function-based controls familiarization module. So if the simulator says to open the apron, for example, it will instruct the student on the screen how to open the apron and then show the student how the machine responds to that function.


Cat's Gen II scraper simulator features different views of the jobsite and the machine at work.

“It’s a physics-based machine and environment model…and we applied physics technology where you’re getting an accurate replication of the soil and an accurate replication of what the machine does when you move a lever or step on the throttle,” he says.


Gen II simulators will offer a host of improvements, including high-fidelity graphics, nighttime training, residential and commercial environments, different soil types, real-time instruction and feedback, free-training module, safety features and more. They will also come with a new training-records management tool powered by SimU Campus, which will create individual student accounts, save and print detailed reports, manage simulator usage and learning activities, allow instructors to customize curriculum, and offer benchmarks based on expert-operator data. That tool can also be purchased as an option for existing Gen I products for $499/license.

“With SimU Campus, we’re collecting data about faults, in order to measure the things you did right and wrong,” Estep says. “We’re collecting data about your performance in specific training modules. We measure things like average depth of cut and the time it takes to do that. We also calculate how much fuel you would’ve consumed. We give the data points that allow a machine owner or instructor to calculate their savings. We don’t calculate dollar savings because we don’t feel that’s giving real accurate data. Because there is so much variation in actual cost from job to job, we don’t want to present a cost-savings value that might not be realistic.”



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The new simulators are only offered as a complete Caterpillar package to ensure operators are using controls that mimic the actual machine’s controls. However, the display devices can be purchased separately or as part of the package. Gen I simulators are priced per one-time license: $7,750 for the excavator; $13,125 for the M-Series graders; $25,000 for the large mining truck. The Gen II wheel tractor scraper simulator’s total cost will be in line with Gen I products; all Gen II products will include a PC, and the display device will be optional.


Gen I Trucks, Large Wheel Loader, and Excavator simulators are available in Spanish, English and French. The motor grader is only available in English. Gen II products will be available in Spanish, English, French and Chinese; a license will cover all languages. During installation you can choose one or all of the languages to install.


John Deere

At Conexpo-Con/Agg 2008, John Deere launched its first earthmoving training simulator for hydraulic excavators. It has been gaining traction as most of the 2009 trade shows touted the new simulator, and there were long lines of attendees who wanted to test their virtual abilities and challenge each other for top assessment scores. Although this training is machine-family specific, Deere says the learned operator techniques can be used on other manufacturers’ equipment as well. Since then, the company launched its second simulator for a 4WD loader in July, and a motor-grader simulator will arrive later this year.


Lesson two of Deere’s simulator includes maneuvering the excavator to specific locations on the jobsite and placing the bucket into a trench at the correct angle.

The main objectives are to demonstrate various operating techniques and practice safe operation on a virtual jobsite. A simple drop-down menu allows users to choose among English, Spanish or French-Canadian languages at any time throughout the training. The graphics are quite realistic with details such as different shadings of color to represent deeper levels of dirt and 3D affects such as dirt spillage and dirt trickling down a pile. Training exercises are very intuitive, and tasks are prompted by changing colors when the machine is positioned where it needs to be. In addition, both backhoe and excavator controls are offered.


Eight of the most common excavator tasks are programmed as lessons in the simulator. The eight modules are: operator-controls overview, placement for trenching, end-of-day parking, dig from a bench/load an ADT, dig a level trench, pick and set a trench box, pipe movement and load onto a low-boy trailer.

  • Mark Kara of IUOE Local 150 Apprenticeship and Skill Improvement Program describes his initial impressions of Deere’s excavator simulator.

    Lesson one familiarizes the operator with joystick controls. A graphic of each joystick function is displayed at the bottom of the screen. Students are prompted with arrows that indicate which function to engage.

  • Lesson two teaches the operator how to use foot pedals. Tasks include maneuvering the excavator to specific locations on the jobs and placing the bucket into a trench at the correct angle.
  • Lesson three requires parking the excavator and maneuvering it around obstacles and safety hazards. Safety violations are tabulated and equipment damage is calculated.
  • Lesson four is the first productivity task whereby an operator has to load two ADTs from a bench in different positions — in a 7-minute time frame. During the task, the operator can see percentage of bucket fill and truck fill, as well as time left on task. Production spillage, equipment damage and bucket slams are all recorded. If any safety violations occur in any of the following lessons, an operator fails the test as there is zero tolerance for those violations.
  • Lesson five requires digging a 3-foot level trench along an excavation line as far as possible in a 5-minute time frame. The operator must maneuver backward while keeping a straight line and also avoid a hidden water line.
  • Lesson six is a timed event that involves managing an 8,800-pound trench box that is heavy enough to tip a 200D over the side of the tracks, responding to hand signals, and placing a payload blind into a trench.
    Pipe-movement is the seventh lesson, which requires handling a short pipe and placing it into a trench box, responding to hand signals, and working around people. This timed event measures efficiency. 
  • The last lesson is a timed exercise that requires driving the excavator onto a trailer while managing the crest point and resulting shifting that will occur, stowing the machine for travel, and then maneuvering the excavator back off the trailer and parking.


An operator’s performance is summarized in a profit/loss format based upon the mistakes made or time taken to complete each lesson.

Each of the productivity tasks features a practice mode and an assessment mode. In practice mode, an operator can run through the same drill unlimited times and receive real-time feedback on each exercise. The program allows him to correct mistakes while also alerting him to any safety hazards. After an operator feels proficient in each task, he switches to the assessment mode and records a final score for the exercise. He only has one chance to take the test. If he fails, he has to get his instructor’s approval to retake the test.


“There are two different user types — an instructor/administrator and a student/operator,” says Michael Hoeg, senior instructional designer and developer for Deere. “When you’re logged in as an administrator, you have the ability to add as many jobsites as you want and also as many operator-users as you want. So you as an administrator can start to track all your operators’ scores and usage and then do some jobsite planning. So if you have three locations, 10 operators each, you can start to run reports. You can go through all your virtual jobsites and see the different operators and see how they’re doing.

“For example, I can pick ‘dig a level trench’ in the menu and it would bring up all my operators and how they’ve done in that exercise. So there are a lot of good reporting and jobsite planning tools in the simulator as well. It’s not just sit down and play,” Hoeg says.

What’s interesting about the assessment mode is that an operator’s performance is summarized in a profit/loss format based on the mistakes made or time taken to complete each lesson. According to Deere, the score is based upon a budget, and all lessons return either a monetary contribution toward or a deduction from the budget, in an itemized format. There is also a dollar amount attached to each safety violation. That presentation illustrates how an operator’s accuracy, efficiency and safety on the jobsite translate into dollars and directly affects budget.



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The cost for John Deere’s excavator simulator runs just under $10,000 and includes simulator stand, replica foot pedals, joysticks and simulator software (a single license). That does not include a monitor. There is a lower-cost alternative of just under $5,000 for the software itself, and it can be used with gaming joysticks/pedals sold at electronics stores. The 4WD loader runs just under $16,000 (without monitor); software-only version is just under $7,000.


Simlog/VISTA Training

Simlog, based in Montreal, Canada, is a pioneer in developing affordable, PC-based heavy-equipment operator training simulators. The company launched its first simulators for the logging industry about 10 years ago. In 2005, it entered the construction-equipment market and introduced its PC-based excavator simulator. Since then, Simlog has added wheel loaders, off-highway trucks, mining trucks, mobile cranes, tower cranes, electric rope shovels, and drill jumbos to its simulator equipment lineup.


A trainee learns truck loading from Simlog’s Wheel Loader Personal Simulator.

Distributed by VISTA Training (Waterford, Wis.), Simlog simulators are an integral part of VISTA’s training program. The company starts with computer-based training (CBT) consisting of 90 to 120 minutes of “e-learning” programs on CDs and DVDs designed for people who work in construction and mining industries. Users advance at their own pace, but are required to go through the course in a specific order and are scored at the end.


From there, VISTA recommends operators advance to Simlog’s Personal Simulator training. The software allows users to turn their own PC into a professional training tool and puts them at the mock controls of an excavator, wheel loader, haul truck, or other piece of equipment, at a virtual construction site. It is available in three languages — English, Spanish or French — and with SAE or backhoe-loader joystick patterns.

“Today’s standard PCs have more power than there was 10 years ago in a large computer room,” says Rick Longstaff, president of VISTA Training. “With the help of VISTA’s equipment-industry training experience, the folks at Simlog have taken and harnessed that power and created the graphics, animation and custom simulation software that several years ago would not have run on a PC.”


An inside view from the excavator cab during Simlog’s Trenching and Truck Loading module shows the dirt falling into the bed of the truck.

The most affordable simulator software on the market, Simlog/VISTA’s excavator simulator costs $4,000, not including joysticks, foot pedals (expected in September 2009), chair or a monitor. But the idea is for people to be able to use their own computer and office chair to make the training more affordable. Depending on your budget, there are three controls options for the excavator simulator: PC controls (the off-the-shelf variety), replica controls (USB-ready industrial components), and OEM controls (with parts from real excavator controls).


“A total of 12 simulation lessons of increasing difficulty make this a much better training tool than a video game,” says Rick Longstaff, president of VISTA Training. “It’s basically a building-block approach. You learn only the things you need to know at the time you need to know them, and you keep building upon those things. That way, the operator gains proficiency slowly and doesn’t feel the need to know everything at once.”


Mike Martens says the National Association of Heavy Equipment Training Schools requires its students to complete the Simlog curriculum before they go on a real machine.

The 12 modules of excavator simulator include: Controls Familiarization, Bucket Placement, Raking the Green, Over the Moon 1 and 2, Carrier Positioning, Carrier Positioning Reverse, Truck Loading, Trench Dumping, Single Pass Digging, Trenching, Trench and Load. Within those modules there are hundreds of different trials that are variations of the task. At the end of each exercise, the simulator records key performance indicators such as execution time, bucket-fill volume, bucket angles, time spent between digging and dumping, as well as safety violations such as bucket slams, collisions and wheel slippage.


“Our software incorporates 3D graphics, sounds, and physics-based motion to realistically simulate the functionality of real equipment,” says Mike Keffer, director of sales and marketing at Simlog, “including detailed modeling of elements like the engine and drive train, a detailed dashboard display inside the operator cabin, and several options to change the operator’s point of view. It’s also the physics of the boom, bucket and terrain. I think it’s really the skills transfer that’s taking place as the student ‘learns by doing’ on the simulator — that’s the breakthrough.”

Most recently, Simlog/VISTA introduced haul truck and wheel loader Personal Simulators. Featuring an advancement over the excavator simulator, they both have built-in dynamic interaction with a companion piece of equipment, Keffer says. The new products also have a more extensive array of controls with steering wheels, gear shifters and pedals — all of which plug into the computer via USBs.


Here is an example of how a Simlog customer, Oklahoma College of Construction, builds its own operator chair.

“Our Wheel Loader simulator has built-in interaction with a simulated off-highway truck that is used to teach ‘truck spotting’ — that is, to teach correct positioning of the wheel loader so that the truck can back-up under the wheel loader bucket for proper positioning before loading,” Keffer says. “Here the student must place the wheel loader in the correct position and ‘call’ the truck. Whereas with our excavator simulator, the built-in articulated dump truck is already in the correct position, so the student just drives up to it.


“Conversely, our off-highway truck simulator has built-in interaction with a simulated wheel loader also to teach truck spotting. With our truck simulator, the student must back up the built-in wheel loader using the side mirrors, position the truck in the correct position, and then ‘call’ the wheel loader. This is a tricky maneuver in real life.”

The wheel loader simulator consists of eight lessons of increasing difficulty beginning with controls familiarization and concluding with a complete cycle including maneuvering, spotting a truck and then loading it. The software uses dynamic-terrain-modeling technology, and all data is tracked to allow comparison to benchmarks, according to VISTA. The commercial software license costs $6,000.

Announced at the same time, Simlog/VISTA also offer an off-highway truck and a mining truck simulator. The first pairs an 85- to 100-ton heavy hauler with a simulated wheel loader; the second is a 240-ton truck interacting with a simulated shovel. The virtual sites are modeled after real quarries and mines, and a total of six lessons take an operator from controls familiarization to a complete haul cycle. The software licenses cost $6,000 to $11,000, respectively.



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After passing all the simulator exercises, VISTA recommends instructor-led training on actual machines. But with training programs incorporating simulators, trainees typically have knowledge and skills well beyond the novice, allowing this very costly — and potentially dangerous — part of the training to be minimized.


Although Caterpillar, John Deere and Simlog offer slightly different technologies, controls, reporting tools and prices, they all have the same basic goals: to provide an affordable, engaging training device and to attract young operators into a construction-equipment career. Those sophisticated training tools will equip operators with the skills they need to help contractors ensure profits in the competitive bidding wars to come.